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Lessons on Leadership

The stereotypical CEO is wrapped in familiar packaging. A corner office. A lengthy resume littered with decades of experience. And their last name on the front door.

But Cal Poly alumni have proven that being an executive today demands something more than the physical signs of success. To lead a growing company in the 21st century requires creativity, collaboration and a keen understanding of the next disruption that will inevitably change the industry while simultaneously giving birth to new opportunity.

Graduates from every discipline at Cal Poly have gone on to found their own companies or earn the top executive position at existing corporations. A group of six alumni CEOs — from the tech sector to agriculture — share their perspectives on what it takes to lead at a time when business is evolving faster than ever.

INTRODUCTIONS

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Jana Itzen

Architecture, ’02
President, CEO and Co-founder of ITZEN Architects Inc., an innovative Southern California architecture and design firm

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Michael Dobak

Business Administration, ’91
CEO of Ogilvy & Mather West and South, one of the world’s most iconic advertising agencies

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Frank Oakes

Biological Sciences, ’73
CEO of Stellar Biotechnologies, a research firm that develops a critical ingredient used in immunotherapy treatments

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Jeff Gray

Political Science, ’98
CEO of Glue Networks, a software company that simplifies and automates complex information networks

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Stan Van Vleck

Agricultural Business, ’88
President and CEO of Van Vleck Ranch, a 12,000-acre cattle ranch near Sacramento; Chairman and Partner, Downey Brand LLP, one of Sacramento’s largest law firms.

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Tricia Compas-Markman

Civil Engineering, ’09; M.S. Civil and Environmental Engineering, ’09
Co-founder and CEO of DayOne Response, a company that produces a device designed to quickly bring clean water to disaster sites

THE PATH TO CEO

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Compas-Markman: I did not envision becoming a CEO. As a student of civil and environmental engineering, typical job paths included as either working in the public sector or as a private consultant. However, through my advisor, Dr. Tryg Lundquist (CE/ENVE Professor) and some other mentors, I gained insight into how blending my problem solving skills and working on global challenges could be turned into a viable business. I started DayOne Response in 2010 based on my graduate work at Cal Poly – focusing on providing innovative clean drinking water solutions for disaster response efforts.

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Dobak: I grew up wanting to be a film and television producer. While I was interviewing in Los Angeles, I took a job at Dailey & Associates, a mid-size advertising agency, to pay the rent. Over the course of my first year, I realized that advertising and marketing allowed me to leverage the skills I learned in college, while giving me a broad creative outlet. I turned my plan B into plan A and have never looked back. It wasn’t until I worked at Ogilvy & Mather in New York, running the IBM global account, that I knew I wanted to be a leader of an office. I wanted to directly impact the business, talent mix, culture and creative product at that level.

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Itzen: I grew up with a pretty creative and entrepreneurial family with untraditional careers. By the time I was in my second year of the architecture program at Cal Poly, I knew that I wanted to have my own design studio.

BUILDING A TEAM

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Gray: We are focused on integrity, innovation and results. There are many sub-bullets under each one, but at the highest level, we are focused on every team member embodying those three core values. A family friend and successful CEO once told me the biggest mistake a CEO can make is being willing to tolerate mediocrity. There is no room for this — everyone you hire in a growth-stage company is a silver bullet.

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Van Vleck: Our firm seeks out people who are smart, work really hard and check their ego in their back pocket. And, most importantly, have a very high social IQ. When you are in a service business and dealing with attorneys, you have to be able to read and work with people.

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Oakes: Stellar has a culture filled with creativity, problem solving and self-motivation. We try to hire strong, self-motivated professionals and give them the freedom to demonstrate their excellence with only high-level guidance and no micromanagement.

LEADING WITH STYLE

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Dobak: I try to be more of a mentor. I like my leadership and team members to have ownership in the idea or solution and to learn from their success or failure. It goes back to Learn by Doing. And within that doing, you have the opportunity to iterate. I also believe that the new workforce likes the freedom to invent, and if you declare a direction, they do not attack it in the same way as providing guidance.

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Compas-Markman: I was once described as an “input junkie.” I like to bounce ideas off my core advisors and management team. I think I am definitely a leader by example and work to incorporate input that will drive us forward in our goals, mission and impact.

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Gray: I’d describe myself as hands-on. Many folks say “trust your team.” I do trust my team, but they need to know what I want, and I need to be connected to understand what is realistic and where we can be more aggressive. This may sound counter-intuitive, but doing your best to stay out of the way for fear of micro-managing is a surefire way to fail in a growth-stage company. You need to keep your finger on the pulse and ask as many questions as you need to understand the situation accurately, and then let your team run.

OVERCOMING RISKS

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Oakes: The field of biotechnology carries risks in drug development as well as the traditional business and economic risks inherent in any small business. Since our business involves the aquaculture production of a rare marine mollusc, we stress the importance of building long-term relationships with our stakeholders in the interest of simultaneously achieving both our environmental and business objectives. We also make sure every employee is trained to recognize risk and empowered to speak up.

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Gray: Risk is everywhere. If we didn’t take risks constantly, then we wouldn’t be creating value differently than the rest. It’s important to keep the wind in the sails and navigate around the icebergs. I think about it this way: it’s possible to drive at night from California to New York. You can only see as far as your headlights, but just focus on the stretch that you can see and have faith that the rest will become more clear as you proceed.

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Compas-Markman: One major variable is that we can’t predict when and where disasters are occurring. However, with historical data and an internal decision matrix, we are able to respond immediately with our customers when needed. Our partners and the relationships we’ve built around the world allow us to really live out our name of “DayOne Response.”

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Van Vleck: Our biggest risk is the failure to understand the ever-changing needs of our clients and not be able to meet those needs.

TRUSTING YOUR GUT

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Gray: There was a time when we had to make a very important decision about the future of the company. Decision A was a long road ahead but felt right in our gut. Decision B was alluring but somehow felt contrived, even though there was a lot of pressure to do it. Our co-founder and I looked in the mirror, reflected on why we started the company, and chose the long road ahead. We have no regrets.

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Itzen: The longer I’m in business the more I learn to trust my gut. At first, I didn’t ever trust myself and I tried to second guess many of the instincts I had about situations or clients. Now we spend a bit more time talking about some of those initial instincts or gut feelings as a team to get a broader perspective, and we usually all agree in the end.

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Compas-Markman: Trusting my gut is key. I made a decision to part ways with a team member when it wasn’t working out. These can be tough conversations, but maintaining professionalism is important. This has helped our team be even stronger.

FOSTERING CULTURE

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Van Vleck: At VV Ranch, we are committed to be the best we can be and, importantly, never try to be a commodity. We try to be unique and ahead of the competition. Once you become a commodity, your competition can race you to the bottom with your prices. We strongly encourage thinking out of the box and provide members of our team with responsibility and accountably.

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Itzen: Our culture is very family-oriented. We spend a lot of time working together, so we want to enjoy the people we work with. We encourage the cross-pollination of our various passions whenever possible, be it photography, coffee or spearfishing! It doesn’t hurt to have an occasional team meeting at the local brewery either.

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Dobak: Our agency is a founder agency, and David Ogilvy set the foundation for our culture, and to some extent the industry, with his book ”Ogilvy on Advertising.” David was a prolific writer, filled with wisdom and wit, and we often find ourselves drawing from his writing or remarks. One example is the belief in divine discontent: “We have a habit of divine discontent with our performance, it is an antidote to smugness.” The changing forces in our industry have a tremendous impact on our company and its culture. We must keep it authentic, and David’s original beliefs certainly help, but we need new principles reflective of a new workforce and creative culture. That’s divine discontent.

GETTING IT WRONG

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Gray: In the past, every time that I have been willing to step over things and provide justifications why people didn’t do as they promised, it has not worked out well. If integrity is compromised, you must acknowledge it. If you don’t deal with this in the appropriate manner — protect yourself and your company — then it will come back later. Better to deal with it now rather than let the problem grow.

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Dobak: When I was starting my career, I was a part of a team pitching an important idea to an existing client. During my section of the presentation, I got the facts wrong. I did not dive into the data or ask for help from a colleague during the presentation. In the end, this discredited me and the team and we did not sell in the idea. Obviously I walked away learning that I need to understand the data and ask for help, but the real lesson was the consequence my mistake had on the entire team and on our business.

LEARNING FROM THE BEST

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Oakes: My favorite boss was also my least favorite. He taught me the art of finding and managing investors. But his bigoted beliefs also made a lasting impression on me about the importance of treating every employee with equal respect for their ability and willingness to contribute, without regard to any personal factor.

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Gray: So far, my favorite boss is the one who sat down and admitted he was wrong and apologized. I have to say that I was very surprised, and his willingness to apologize and make the situation right has stuck with me.

MEASURING SUCCESS

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Itzen: Right now, being successful means being in a position where I can choose how to spend my time and choose the people I want to work with.

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Oakes: I count the things I have accomplished in business that were never done previously by others.

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Dobak: I ask myself, “Am I happy?” There are so many measures of success we are held to that shape our performance. Of course I am striving to achieve those, but satisfaction and happiness in what I am doing day to day is the primary measure for me.

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Van Vleck: My family is what matters most. So, if things are going well in that regard, all else is good. Candidly, I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about whether I am successful or not. If I am doing what I love, all is good!